by Jill Smith
When I wrote my book Mother of the Isles (Dor Dama Press 2003) I had not yet managed to visit her. I had tried for 15 years, to no avail. Chartered boats were too expensive, cruises couldn’t guarantee to stop there and places on NT working parties impossible to get on. It was only when Angus Campbell of Kilda Cruises began day-trips in a speed-boat in 2005 that for me it finally became possible.
Where is St. Kilda (or Hiort or Hirte)? Forty miles west of the Western Isles, which are themselves a long way west of Scotland. Rocky remnants of an ancient volcano, the group of islands and stacs rise sheer from the depths of dark green water, covered with hundreds of thousands of sea-birds which the islanders hunted precariously through millennia until the last few people left in 1930.
There have been many human populations over those years, the penultimate of which almost died out from a smallpox epidemic in 1727, to be replaced by more people from Harris. It was these latter people who finally left in the 20th century.
When Martin Martin visited around 1695 and wrote A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland it was that penultimate people which he met and who told him of the Amazon Woman. Later populations lived in Village Bay, but over the high “spine” of the main island of Hirte – Mullach Geal – there is another, more anciently inhabited glen, through the centre of which runs a river. The whole glen, now known as Gleann Mor, was previously called Gleann na Banaghaisgeach or Glen of the Female Warrior. One of the ancient houses was Tigh na Banaghaisgeach or House of the female Warrior, or sometimes the Giantess’ House.
When Martin visited her house it was pretty well intact but later became somewhat ruined. He refers to her as “this Amazon” and describes her house. I quote him fully in my book but he says there is one stone where she laid her helmet and another two where she laid her sword; that she was “much addicted to hunting” and let loose her greyhounds after the deer in St. Kilda. He adds “There are several traditions of this famous Amazon, with which I will not further trouble the reader”! And so, when most of that population died, so did these traditions. This description however, is enough to give some sense of a possible ancient Goddess figure, who was very important to them.
When I lived on Lewis from 1986-1996, on the other side from the Atlantic, I still felt her as a very powerful energy. St. Kilda can sometimes be seen from parts of West Harris and Lewis, but mostly disappears into distant haze, giving it a very magical other-worldly quality.
By the time 2005 came I was living in England but returning to Lewis at least once a year with my son. That year, by the time our visit was arranged, Angus was fully booked. However he said he would try to fit us in somehow and on our coach journey to the Islands we heard it would have to be the very next day.
It was stunning to be at last on the island I had so longed to visit. The day was beautiful but the hills were covered in dense, low cloud. St Kilda has its own weather. Arriving in Village Bay, most day-tourists stay in this area, one only having 4 hours on the island at most. The hills and cliffs are incredibly steep and high, some leading to sheer drops on their far sides. That year I wasn’t sure how to get to Gleann Mor and the Amazon house. After some time in Village Bay we slowly climbed Mullach Geal but by the time we found our way to the head of Gleann Mor it was too late to get down to the house and then back up for the return boat. It felt as though the Amazon was still playing hard to get! However, we gazed down through the mist to the river, the cleits and the distant ancient houses and I felt I had got my bearings. I now knew how to find the Gleann and the whereabouts of the House but most of all I had experienced the powerful energy of the Amazon which seemed to fill the whole of Gleann Mor, so very different from the feel of Village Bay. I felt I had made a real connection with her and must return.
Our journey back included a trip round the stacs as Angus checked his lobster pots. The cliffs rose vertically above us from the deep green water and the air teemed with fulmar and gannets, the rocks garlanded with their white guano, dripping from the ledges on which they nest.
By 2010 I was back living on Lewis, now on the Atlantic side, near a road where occasionally, magically, the islands of Hirte and Boreray appear, seemingly balanced on the horizon. An attempt that year to arrange a stay-over on Hirte, travelling with a local boat company, fell through at the last minute, but I decided to go with them for another day trip.
Although summer, this proved to be even more cloudy than my first trip, the sea very rough, but the journey exciting, accompanied by diving gannets and sometimes Great Skuas (known locally as Bonxies) which are big, beautifully patterned, brown and cream birds.
On arriving on Hirte the visibility was extremely poor and I had to make a quick decision. Should I go for it? Could I get there and back in the thick cloud in time for the return boat? I slowly climbed the MOD road which snakes up Mullach Geal. (The island is leased by the National Trust to the MOD for radar tracking purposes). I got to the point where I would have to leave the road and I really had no doubt. I would have to go for it! I did wish I had some kind of Ariadne thread though! A line of cleits leads towards the Gleann to begin with. Cleits are tall, narrow dry-stone built structures topped with turf (looking like crazy wigs) which are everywhere over the island and unique to St Kilda. They were used for storage and drying of all the Islanders’ produce. On this misty day they loomed suddenly and strangely out of the fog.
I made my way easily down to the ancient houses even though sometimes I would be hit by a strong wind and have to cling to the ground. There are quite a number of these old structures low down in the Gleann. It is not known how old they are, invasive archaeology which might give some idea not yet having been carried out. Some think they are mediaeval, others that they are pre-historic. Other related findings are beginning to point to the latter. In their partly ruined state it can be difficult to clearly see their structure. Triple cellular structures are built into large mounds, so the dwelling spaces would have been artificially underground. They are similar to “beehive houses” found elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands. They have spaces built into the walls, some possibly used for sleeping. Nowadays the roofs of the cells have collapsed leaving them open to the sky, but the whole impression now is of green faerie mounds. Later populations living in Village Bay used the houses for shielings when they would bring livestock into the Gleann, and they used some of the stone from the houses to build other structures onto them, like cleits and strange long tentacular “arms” which snake across the ground in front of the houses and were probably used as “lamb folds”. Now everything is ancient and they give the impression of being half stone, half living creatures. Especially in the thick cloud!
There is of course no sign saying “Amazon House”(!) but I had some plans from books and soon came upon one structure which left me in no doubt. It loomed above me, its “arms” stretching out to enfold me and seeming to have an almost overwhelming and powerful energy. Huge and strong, the energy of the Amazon! This massive ancient energy seemed to fill the whole glen. It was truly awesome.
I couldn’t stay long. I took a few photographs then headed back past huge mist-shrouded cleits standing like sentinels.
Up and along, up and along. After a while, when I thought I should soon be at the road, I heard the ocean on my left and realised I had walked right round the head of the river and was on the opposite side of it to the Amazon House! She had played hard to get, now she wasn’t letting me go! Looking down on houses below me, they appeared as strange crab-like creatures at the bottom of the ocean of some other-worldly planet.
I tried again to leave the glen, being dive-bombed by “bonxies” which are notorious for swooping down at your head. This time I ended up on a high ridge with the ocean pounding below me, huge rocky outcrops rising on either side in a beautiful area of cleits like some ancient abandoned village. I really was lost! But I felt no fear, felt extraordinarily at home, in a state of bliss, enfolded by the Amazon. I thought the boat must have gone, thought I would sleep in a cleit and hope the cloud cleared in the morning. I had food, water, warm and waterproof clothes … this really was one of the most dreamlike experiences of my life … Soon though, I heard shouts and three men and a jeep had come to “rescue” me.
In 2011 I finally managed to liaise a time which suited both Angus and the NT to go over in May and stay a few days camping. May is usually one of the best months in the Hebrides. I got a lift to South Harris, passing rainbows en route, but the sea was wild and Angus cancelled his day trip. He did, however, have to take some archaeologists over, so I and another camper were eventually able to go, even though we were promised a Force 10 a few days later and no guarantee of a return journey! We circled round a huge basking shark, its wide open mouth fluorescent turquoise under the water.
I could hardly believe it when, as we neared Hirte, it began to rain very heavily. Not again! By the time all was unloaded we were soaked, but I got my little trusty tent up. It’s been with me over 25 years and still going very strong. You have to take all your own food with extra in case you get stranded and everything else you could possibly need. There’s no shop, only an “ablutions block” which is shared by all the work-parties etc who are out there in the summer. I lay that evening listening to the rain very close above me, deliciously happy, and slept like a log.
Looking out next morning – the cloud had gone! I headed off as soon as I could. The resident archaeologist, Ian McHardy, had shown me many things I wouldn’t have found on my own, including one I passed on my way up Mullach Geal – the “Milking Stone” where the Kildans made offerings to the Gruagach and under which the faeries could be heard rattling their spoons.
At last I stood beside the cleits at the top of Gleann Mor and this time I could see everything! The river, the houses, the cleits and the ocean beyond. I found my way down to the Amazon House. This time I had a “bonxie stick” tied onto my backpack. It had glittery streamers tied on the end and it did seem to work. The great birds circled around but didn’t go for me. Even in the bright sunlight the Gleann was still filled with this powerful energy which I identify as the Amazon energy. It has a kind of “darkness”, though not in a negative way, just very different from Village Bay which is quite “light”. For all the beauty of this day I wouldn’t have missed my previous experience for worlds.
It is hard to relate the Amazon House to Martin’s description, but all the structures in the Gleann are quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. They evoke such a different life-style even from the lives of the Village Bay people living in thatched “Black Houses” similar to those in other parts of the Highlands and Islands. It is very easy in Gleann Mor to feel in the presence of Faerie. I spent a long while with this house, expressing my gratitude for at last being given the time to experience it fully.
I walked over, past a long wall, to an area where steep cliffs drop down to Gleann Bay and the ocean. Here I found the famous Tobar nam Buaidh or Well of Virtues. This is a stone structure with a domed stone roof. The spring-water pours like a waterfall into a square stone box and then out over stones down towards the sea. It is beautifully clean, clear and pure and tastes almost creamy, like no water I’d tasted before. I offered it my drinking water, filled my bottle and sat there a long while filled with gratitude.
Even the apparently flat parts of this glen are deceptively sloping and I found by now I was too tired to explore right over the other side of the glen. Clouds occasionally threatened and this time I didn’t want to get lost on my way back. I slowly, slowly climbed out of the Gleann, back down the MOD road and back to my tent, completely exhausted but utterly exhilarated.
The next day the cloud had descended once more and the day after that the storm was building up. Angus couldn’t get out for us, but we were “rescued” by a cruise ship which called by. As we left we got a tour round all the islands and stacs and I realised to my joy that we were passing by Gleann Bay and I was able to look right up Gleann Mor from the sea, even though it was half filled with cloud.
We were returned to Stornoway after visits to Iona and Mull. Quite a rescue! What a trip.
It is hard to describe the pull which St. Kilda has on many people. It can almost become like an obsession. It is hard to describe the energy of the place and especially that of Gleann Mor and the Amazon House area. It really has to be experienced.
So who was she, this Amazon? Was she some creation ancestress as ancient as the rocks themselves, whose energy still fills the place and which was acknowledged by the people anciently living there? Was she some other Goddess brought by early settlers? Could she have been some pre-historic or historic living person mythologised over time? I wish we had more of those other tales Martin thought he wouldn’t bother us with. Whatever or whoever she was, she is a real energy which does fill the place and was acknowledged and revered by the inhabitants down through the centuries.
My son Taliesin has since told me of Amazon women (usually in threes) in Irish and Welsh legends and I have read that the Romans employed Amazon warriors. I would like to find out about all of these. One thing is certain, I want to return again and again to those magical islands. In the meantime I shall keep hoping to see their distant triangles on the horizon as I pass down my local road….
Isle of Lewis 2012
Mother of the Isles can now be obtained from Jill. See www.jill-smith.co.uk
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